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Wednesday 20th June 2012 | 18:44
There are certain terms bandied around in the political world that can at times seem entirely meaningless to those outside, few more so than the way in which we label political ideas and visions as being of the ‘left’ or ‘right’. YouGov last week published an exceptionally interesting poll, conducted last October, on public perceptions of these identities.
Overall, just 26% of the public felt they understood the terms “very well”, with a large gender divide (men 34%, women 18%) and income divide (ABC1s 31%, C2DEs 19%). The terms also seem to mean slightly more to older generations, for whom a genuine ideological struggle in domestic and international politics amid the Cold War, laid bear clearer dividing lines than for younger generations – 3 in 10 understand the terms very well, compared to just 1 in 5 of those under 40.
The poll also tests voters overall favourability towards the Left and Right, with the former leading on net -8 points, ahead of the Right on -13. This is turn highlights the slight ideological advantage the Left continues to hold, at least among those who engage with politics. This poll is crucial in understanding the roots of the Lib Dem difficulties amid the Coalition. Much as just 32% of Liberal Democrat voters from the last election view the Left positively (27% negatively), a mere 11% view the Right positively and a significant 49% view it negatively. Nick Clegg’s quietly held views that losses of the left-wing Lib Dem vote could be substituted with consolidation and growth on the Right seem to have one significant flaw: the different political wings of the Lib Dem coalition are not of equal size. Moreover, 50% of the current Liberal Democrat vote, i.e. those who remain even after the post-Coalition exodus, view the Right unfavourably, suggesting Mr Clegg’s support could be squeezed further still.
Perhaps most interesting, however, were supporters of the two main parties perceptions of the different wings. There were many areas of overall agreement; both Conservative and Labour voters saw Privatisation (by 48 and 49 points) and Cutting Benefits (by 44 and 48 points) as heavily right wing, just as they saw Supporting Trade Unions (by 62 and 58 points) as left wing. Much as “small government” was seen as right-of-centre by a broad consensus across parties (Conservatives by 17 points and Labour by 10), the low level of voters placing it in either camp perhaps adds it to the list of political phrases with which the public don’t engage.
There are areas, however, of significant difference. Amorphous ‘good things’ like Common Sense and Opportunity were seen as left-wing by Labour supporters (by 27pts and 19pts) and right-wing by Conservatives (by 31pts and 35pts). But so too did some policy areas see a divide, including Cutting Crime (seen as right-wing by Conservatives by 47pts and but Labour supporters by just 5 points) and, interestingly, Cutting Waste (30pts to the right for Conservatives, 7pts to the left for Labour). Idealism, which might also be seen as an area of motherhood-and-apple-pie was seen as being of the Left by Labour supporters by 10pts, but seen as almost three times more so by Conservatives (29pts), suggesting they did not see it as a political virtue.
The findings are also more than a little reminiscent of the quote attributed to Herbert Morrison that “Socialism is what a Labour government does”; if they feel comfortable with an idea, it’s on their side of the fence. Such polls are hugely useful to a party’s branding and communications and are all too rare in a political culture focused on the partisan horse race.